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Abstract -- The User Interface of URLs Application Technology Track
A5: Navigating the Web

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The User Interface of URLs

Hoffman, Paul E. ( phoffman@proper.com)


URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) have rapidly become the standard method for specifying how to access information and services on the Internet. Although mostly used on the World Wide Web, URLs are also becoming more common for specifying locations for other distributed Internet services such as Gopher and anonymous FTP. Internet users see URLs both online and in print, and therefore URLs have visual interfaces.

To date, most people consider it sufficient for a URL to just be correct: they do not care how a particular URL looks. However, URLs are often quite intimidating to novice (and not-so-novice) users because of their structure. Further, many current URLs are quite difficult to type or even to read, making them seem mysterious and possibly scary to a large number of users.

With a little thought to their presentation, however, URLs for most Internet services can be made more inviting and useful. This is not to say that the specification for the structure of URLs must be changed: instead, people who create Internet services need to think more about how to name them so that they will appear better in URLs. (The specification for URLs is currently in draft from in the URI working group of the IETF.)

A few common problems with URLs include:

There are many other common problems, such as URLs that are hard for newspapers to include in print because of special characters that are used in typesetting. All of these problems are easy to fix if the person creating the resource thinks about them ahead of time.

Further, URLs can even be designed to help users hunt for what they want using networked information tools. For instance, by using very descriptive directory names, users can use client software to move around a directory tree from the starting location given in a URL to related locations. Such URLs enhance the common kinds of exploration many Internet users perform.

Considering the user interface of URLs is also important for information providers who want to obscure the names of their resources. For example, some sites will want to purposely prevent people from hunting at their sites. Even in such cases, using opaque names that are easy to read and type is still important.

This paper describes problems that are common in current URLs seen on the Internet and gives concrete suggestions for how to improve those URLs. It also gives rules for planning for friendlier URLs and suggestions on how to create URLs that help users hunt for information related to a given URL.